You can listen to this sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.
Words are important. You might expect to hear that from a guy who loves to write and does word history studies just for fun, but I think even if you aren’t my special brand of weird, we can all understand the power and importance of words. Of course, some words are more important than others. In the course of this roughly 1,400 word sermon, not every word is of utmost importance. I didn’t labor, thesaurus in hand, to make sure I chose the correct word every single time, but there are places where a careful choice has to be made. This is especially true when it comes to titles. The title of a book, movie, poem, or even a sermon can be the difference between a smash hit, and something that never sees the light of day. Take for example, the classic Alfred Hitchcock film, Psycho. If it had been released under its original name, Wimpy, I can’t imagine it having the same punch. What if Titanic had been called The Ship of Dreams or instead of Casablanca, it stayed Everybody Comes to Rick’s. It just doesn’t have the same appeal. Most Bibles these days are chock full of titles; breaking down each section into an easily consumable, bite-sized morsel. The problem with those titles is that they often begin the process of interpretation, cueing our brains to pay attention to certain details while ignoring others. Today’s Gospel lesson is a prime example. Pick up any Bible you can find, open it to Luke 15:11 and you’ll find the title: The Parable of the Prodigal Son. This is one of Jesus’ best known parables. It is so well known, that it has its own colloquialism: “the prodigal returns,” which I think means, one who has left has now come back.
How does our understanding of this story change if we know that prodigal doesn’t mean wandering or straying away, but in fact means “wastefully extravagant?” Coming from that perspective, the Prodigal Son isn’t a story about a son who has gone away and returned, but the given title focuses our attention on the how the younger son spent his wealth on wasteful extravagance. He squandered his inheritance on sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and given the title; I guess that is supposed to be the focus of our attention. This creates a nice moral lesson and a fabulously easy, albeit oddly specific sermon: don’t tell your dad you wish he was dead, take your inheritance prematurely, and waste it on immoral living. I feel like maybe that’s too easy. I wonder if perhaps whoever titled this story had their own daddy issues, and decided to project them onto all of us.
If I were in charge of putting titles in the Bible, I would call this story the Parable of the Prodigal Father because it seems to me, that if anyone in this story is wastefully extravagant, it is the dad, who, on four different occasions, totally ignores the social conventions of his day to show his love to his sons with prodigality. It all starts with that horribly awkward conversation when the younger son walks up to his dad and says, essentially, “You’re dead to me. I’d like my share of the inheritance now.” Social convention would say to tell this young man he can either fall back in line or leave without anything, but dad doesn’t do that. Instead, he complies with his son’s request, which is no easy feat in first century Palestine. The man couldn’t call his stock broker, sell a few hundred shares, and hand his son some cash. Wealth was measured in land and livestock. To give his son the money he wanted, the father would have to sell off his property, which would mean a smaller farm, which would mean fewer slaves, which would mean a general downturn in the economic stability of his household and therefore the whole community would suffer. Out of prodigal love for his son, and a desire to let him make his own mistakes and learn his own life lessons, the father sells it off, hands his son a wad of cash, and with a heart that must have been shattered into pieces, watched him leave for a far away land.
Jesus infers that the man never really left that spot on the edge of his property. For as long as his son is gone, he continued to watch for him, hoping and praying that one day he would return safely. We don’t know how long it took the son to squander his wealth, or how many months of feeding slop to the pigs he endured before he decided to come back home, but you can imagine it was quite a while. No matter how long it took, when that day came, and without care or concern as to whether his son was truly repentant or not, the father was there waiting. While his son was still a long way off, he caught a glimpse, and out of that same prodigal love, he disregarded all social convention, hitched up his tunic, and took off running. Men of his status didn’t run; they certainly didn’t run after sons who wished them dead, and they absolutely didn’t embrace them or welcome them with the kiss of peace, but that’s exactly what he did.
The love of the father was so over the top that he threw a party for his son who once was lost. Social convention said that the townsfolk would gather when the son returned, but not for a party. Instead, they’d take part in a gesasah ceremony. “They would gather around him, breaking jars of corn and nuts and declare that he was to be cut off from the village. His [re]entry… would be humiliating as his townspeople expressed their anger and resentment toward his actions.” Instead, dad’s prodigal love meant he killed the fatted calf, brought out the good wine, and invited the whole town to celebrate the return of his youngest son.
When word came that his older son refused to enter the party, the prodigal dad once more defied social convention to show his love for a son who didn’t much deserve it. Instead of sending a servant out to deal with his son or simply demanding that his eldest come join the party, the father leaves the celebration to plead with his son to join in rejoicing that his brother who was dead is now alive; was lost, but now is found. In the end, however, the same prodigal love that let his youngest son walk away would leave his first born standing outside of the party, sulking over the fact that his father’s love really was wastefully extravagant.
The Parable of the Prodigal Father isn’t a fable that invites us to not be immoral like the younger son. Even though the story is directed at the grumpy Pharisees and scribes who complained that Jesus was hanging out with the wrong crowed, he doesn’t invite his listeners to not be stubborn like the older brother. It isn’t a story teaching us how to forgive those who have hurt us. The Parable of the Prodigal Son really isn’t about us at all. It is about God, and how God’s love is wastefully extravagant; being poured out over and over again on folks like you and me: sinners, tax collectors, spoiled brat second children and slavish rule following firstborns. In sending his only Son, God the Father disregards all social convention, all the ways in which we think he should have fixed our mess, and all the plans and schemes of human beings, to show us his prodigal love, poured out in blood and water from the wounded side of Jesus, dead on the cross. Words matter and the two words at the heart of this story are prodigal love: God’s wastefully extravagant, self-giving love for every human being who was once dead, and thanks to Jesus is now alive in the Spirit, who was once lost, but thanks to God’s amazing grace, is now found. Amen.